Mahogany is grown in the Caribbean and South America. The island mahogany is plain and hard, whilst the mahogany that comes from the mainland is lighter and much easier to work with. The mainland mahogany lends itself to decorative figuring and has become known as Honduras Mahogany. Much of the timber imported before 1750 came from the Caribbean islands and with the development of coke fired furnaces around 1710, higher grade steel tools were made to cope with the much harder timber. It was not long before the full potential of the wood was discovered.
Mahogany was at its height of fashion throughout the middle part of the 18th century, a period dominated by the reign of George II, but by this time it had been in use for many years. At first mahogany was just used as a substitute for walnut, and was generally used for chairs and smaller pieces of furniture, with larger pieces being made in walnut. One of the distinct features of the Honduras mahogany is the exceptional grain, which shows the struggle and strains the tree went through. To think of a few extreme weather scenarios that effected the trees growth, hurricanes, draughts and floods have all caused the different types of grain such as flame, fiddle or mottled.
The great age of mahogany started around 1740. It was hugely treasured for its rich, red-brown colour in solid carved pieces and flaming grain patterns on flat pieces. Its use for strong shaped elements, as in chair making or crisply carved ornament equalled its other great virtue, that it could be polished to a glorious finish. Mahogany dominated furniture for 150 years and its high point is marked by certain great furniture designers.
William Kent was certainly the first great exponent of Mahogany, and Thomas Chippendale, who almost certainly spent his youth working on designs and cabinet making for Kent's grand projects will always be synonymous with the great age of mahogany. His designs, as documented in his “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director” of 1754' explored the most elaborate forms that mahogany would allow displayed in the latest fashions as expected by his clients.
The prolific use of mahogany continued well into the 19th century, firms such as Gillows and Morgan and Saunders imported mahogany and continued to make pieces of grand design for every sort of purpose.